Tongue firmly in his cheek, NASCAR’s Ryan Newman looked at fellow drivers Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano next to him after Sunday’s race and asked: “Anybody fight, or not?”
It was a wry reference to the previous week’s post-race brawl in Texas, and in fact there was no follow-up fighting at Phoenix International Raceway.
But the drama was intense nonetheless in the next-to-last race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup title playoff.
Kevin Harvick won in dominating fashion and will join Newman, Hamlin and Logano in a one-race shootout for the championship next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.
Four other Chase drivers were eliminated: Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski — who were at the center of last week’s brawl — along with Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.
Harvick automatically advanced with his victory on a warm, cloudless day, his fourth win in the last five Cup races at the one-mile PIR oval. The other three advanced by being highest in points among the eight drivers in contention.
“Here we come, Homestead,” Harvick said. “I guess that’s what it feels like to hit a walk-off [home run] in extra innings.”
Newman, in his first year at the Richard Childress Racing team, made the most dramatic move of the day when he passed Kyle Larson after their cars banged together on the last lap to finish 11th.
In doing so, Newman moved one point ahead of Gordon, allowing Newman to reach the final four of the Chase and eliminating Gordon.
“If Kyle Larson was in my shoes he’d have done the exact same thing,” Newman said. “I don’t like racing that way but there’s a lot on the line.”
It was a dizzying task trying to keep track of which four drivers would advance, because the eight drivers started the race separated by only 18 points and the standings changed throughout the 312 laps.
The only constant was the strength of Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet, and he led 264 laps.
All of which is just what NASCAR wanted when the sanctioning body revised the Chase this year to make the playoff more exciting.
The 10-race Chase opened with 16 drivers, and four drivers were eliminated after every third race, a knockout format that leaves only four to decide the championship next Sunday.
The revised Chase also was intended to give drivers a greater impetus for winning, as opposed to simply amassing points. Yet Newman has yet to win a race this season.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “We’re in this hunt. I’m proud of all my guys.”
This much is sure: NASCAR will crown a first-time champion at Homestead-Miami; none of the finalists has won a title. “That’s a chance for a dream come true for all of us,” Newman said.
Gordon finished second in the Phoenix race, followed by Kenseth, Keselowski, Hamlin and Logano. Edwards finished 15th.
Both Hamlin and Logano battled back from early problems. Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota had a flat tire and Logano started to drive his No. 22 Ford out of the pits before a crewman had pulled out the fuel-can nozzle, costing Logano a penalty.
Gordon, who was seeking his fifth championship, said being eliminated by a single point “makes last week hurt that much more.”
He was referring to how Keselowski made late-race contact with Gordon’s car at Texas, cutting one of Gordon’s tires and sending the car into a spin. Gordon, who had been fighting for the lead, finished 29th instead, and his anger over the contact sparked the post-race brawl on pit road.
As for the Phoenix race, “Harvick was in another ZIP code,” Gordon said, adding that he picked Harvick — who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing — to win the Cup title next Sunday.
Not so fast, Hamlin said.
“It’s a 50-50 shot that the fastest car of the four of us isn’t going to win just because of circumstances,” he said. “They don’t give trophies out for who’s the favorite, who’s got fast cars. Whoever executes a flawless day is going to be the champion.”